I have loved animals since infancy. Whereas most children’s first words are “mama” or “dada” I’ve been told many times, mine was clearly “doggie.” My father used to tell me again and again of the time we went to the zoo when I first learned to talk and pointed at the elephant and squealed “doggie!’ My first toy was a Snoopy doll that I dragged with me everywhere for years until its fur had worn off and its head had to be sewn back on. At about age five I was convinced I would one day marry Snoopy.
Growing up in a New York City apartment we never had a dog, despite this early passion. I was given lots of reasons for this — allergies, our summer travels, who was going to be the one to take the dog out regularly. My maternal grandparents had a beagle named Euri when I was young. My visits to Massachusetts to see them were all the more joyful because of him. For a brief while I could pretend had a dog of my own. When I was about eight years old, my grandparents came to visit us in New York and I asked how Euri was. “Oh didn’t we tell you, we had to put him to sleep.” And in that one cavalier statement I experienced my first profound loss. I don’t think they realized what that dog meant to me, but I remember crying every night for days, my small body heaving with sorrow over the dog I would never see again.
My father tried to compensate for this lack of real animals in my life by bringing me back stuffed animals from his business trips in Europe. Actually they were meant to compensate for his absence in my life as well, so every few months a new creature would arrive in my life, always a Steiff and always with a name. If I had been born a boy, my name would have been Frederick Erik Nicholas Christopher (as a girl I was given an equal number of names), and so instead into my life arrived Frederick and Christopher the rabbits, Nicholas the German Shepherd. Despite the fact that these animals symbolized a father who was rarely home, there is a sweetness to these memories, a father who did try in some small ways to make offerings of love to me.
In high school, my parents were in the midst of great ugliness in their marriage and so one day, walking by the pet store window, my heart lit up upon seeing a German Shepherd puppy. Buying an animal from a pet store is never a good choice, neither is buying one as a way of placating your teenage daughter. Nicky was a gorgeous dog, but also a bit crazy from in-breeding I suspect. I had him for two years until I went away to college and had spent hours trying to work with him. I ended up bringing him out to my uncle in California, and he wasn’t able to manage him either.
It would be a few more years until I had another dog of my own. My husband and I had been married for three years when we went to the Sacramento SPCA and saw Duke who was to become our companion for nine years. Duke was part luck-dragon (Falcor from the Never-Ending Story) and part polar bear. He will always live mythically in our imaginations.
Then of course came Tune, our sweet girl in the photos above. I saw her at Petfinder.com, the shelter animal website with a notice that urgent foster care was needed. We fostered her for maybe a day before I knew I was not giving her back.
I could not even begin to count the endless wisdom Tune brings to my life — the reminders of healthy rhythms, the joy of being in a body, her complete freedom to be herself. There is a soulfulness to her that for me is undeniable. In sharing my life with a dog, I open myself to another consciousness or way of knowing that has a similar effect on me as being in the woods or by the sea. I can hear another voice in her communications, a voice rooted in the earth. I am reminded of my kinship with creation.
In the midst of what has been another busy week I took my copy of Pack of Two by Caroline Knapp off my shelf. Knapp writes of the intimacy she experiences with her dog Lucille, the profound affection she has for this animal, and many stories of her interactions with people who clearly don’t grasp the importance of this canine relationship for her and some who even think she is pretty strange for feeling this way. Of course, I saw a lot of myself in her writing. The secret dog language, the arranging of her life around her dog’s needs, the intimacy and care called out of her for another.
As I continue to discern how I am called to focus my energy in the coming months, Tune sits vigil with me. She waits and watches, she offers her fur-covered body as a sacrament of all that is beautiful and holy about making time for rest and play. She invites me to rest in this moment right here and now, to reel in my thoughts scrambling anxiously toward the future. I remember that in an unhurried life I have room for more dreaming and imagining, more delight and possibility. I have time to pull the bodies of those I love close to me, to hold them and to be held.
-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts